Guitarist Musicianship 101
I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this column will have found themselves at one time or another in the position of progression, stagnation, frustration, confusion or the point of just sailing along on a comfortable plateau in their guitar playing. There are times when we are inspired, intimidated or just plain depressed by the amazing playing ability of another guitarist and wonder if we could ever be that good!. Well,I experience all of these feelings too but wanted to share with you some thoughts that keep me moving forward as a player and most importantly a musician with hopefully something to contribute to the wonderful world of music.
The art of guitar playing is a challenging yet incredibly rewarding skill we have decided to indulge in. Regardless of where we are on this journey there will always be someone who is subjectively ‘better’ or perceived to be more advanced than ourselves and there will always be someone who we can help and inspire to learn and enjoy the pursuit of music. The most important thing I try to remember when these thoughts come to mind is that ‘playing the guitar is not a competition’ and everyone has something unique to offer. Joe Pass and Eddie Van Halen are both incredibly talented in their chosen genre of music yet neither could play with the same personality as the other. The musicality, stylistic approach, feel, phrasing and note choices would always be very different. There have been times when a student who has only been playing for a few months or so has blown me away with a concept or musical idea that I had never thought of. They taught me something that opened up a whole new world for me.
There is nothing like the feeling of hitting all the right notes in all the right places, whether we are jamming with friends, playing live with a band or tracking a solo in the studio. There is also nothing quite like making a ‘mistake’ or playing a wrong note in any one of those situations. When this happens a good mood can take a downturn quickly and feelings of self doubt can start to creep in to the delicate heart and mess with a guitarist’s mind! Alternatively we can laugh and move on, hit the ‘clunker’ note again with purposeful glee as if we meant to play it or ask the engineer if we can take it one more time from the top. How we handle these situations is the most important part of our playing development and ultimate enjoyment. Remember this, even the absolute best players on the planet make mistakes from time to time. We are human beings, not programmable devices that repeat performances exactly every time. Performances and development will fluctuate with the human cycle and that means there will be days when you think you ‘suck’ and days where you feel like a super hero that can do no wrong. Once a note is played it can’t be changed so move on and enjoy the next experience.
It also takes more than just talent when working with other musicians. Most band members will tell you that your personality and general demeanor are just as important as your playing ability and chops. Let’s face it who wants to spend 3 months on a tour bus with an egotistical lunatic regardless of whether they can play 32nd notes at 200 bpm!!!! So when you go to see a band and think to yourself, ‘well, that was great but the guitarist didn’t impress me that much’, it’s not a competition and also he /she might just be the nicest person you could ever hang out with and plays just the right thing at just the right time. Punctuality, professionalism, having good equipment that works and learning the material are equally as important as your playing ability so make sure you keep a check on your global assets when you think of yourself as a valuable guitarist/musician.
Is a guitarist a musician? I think of a musician as someone who listens to the other players and compliments the arrangement with what he or she does. If that means playing absolutely nothing until the chorus and then only whole note spread chords because that’s what the arrangement cries out for, then that’s being a tasteful and considerate musician. Does the sound you are using work with song’s arrangement? Did you time your delay to the track tempo? Are you using too much reverb for the staccato chord passages? Does your guitar stay in tune and intonate across the full length of the fretboard? ARE YOU PLAYING TOO LOUD? WHAT? Exactly! All these questions can be answered by just listening to what is going on around you and being sensitive to fitting in with the ensemble rather than standing out as the ‘guitarist’. We are guitarist’s but we are also valuable team players and part of a band or musical arrangement. If the keyboard player is playing block chords maybe using arpeggiated chord passages might work better with the arrangement. Listen and let your ear guide you.
Being sensitive to the length of a solo section is also very important, the audience may lose the will to live when your lead guitar solo exceeds 6 minutes. (looking up and seeing the drummer and bass player at the bar is usually a good indication of when to pull the plug!). Solo’s can be musical passages too and not just a forum to display your technique. Some of the best solo’s are simple melodies or ‘hooks’ that can be sung by the listener.
I used to teach live performance workshops at The Musicians Institute In London and on one particularly memorable occasion during a blues workshop a very talented European guitarist played the most outlandish two handed tapping solo across a shuffle in E. When the song finished he asked me what I thought of his performance. I told him his rhythm playing needed some work as he missed several chord changes, the lead playing was exceptional if only it were on another song and quite honestly he’d be fired if it was my band. I explained that while his lead guitar technique for the shortest part of the song was ‘absolutely lovely’ it was quite out of context for the style of music being played and we were looking for stylistic interpretation in close proximity to a blues shuffle. I’m all about personal musical expression but every solo on every song he played he did the same thing the same way, (I also heard that he could type 400 words a minute too!!!!). I wanted him to have a career in music and politely asked if he would listen in future to what the song required rather than just playing what he wanted to play. Not the best way of making friends but I was there to give him advice not ‘blow smoke’. I hope he loves me for it now!!!
As an exercise, the next time you pick up your guitar, play a chord other than an A in open position and really listen to how it sounds. Was it played cleanly? Are there any buzzes. Name the notes in the chord. Play a single note lead lick and really make it count. The phrasing, dynamics and resolution. What chord or chords were you intending it to be played over? The reason I say this is that even if we are stuck in a rut, not really knowing how to progress or develop we can progress by listening and tuning in to what we already know and making it just a little bit better or understanding it just a little bit deeper. Close your eyes and really hear what you are saying through your fingers and guitar. Emote into your playing and let the music move you emotionally………it’s a two way street!
As food for thought and a teaser for future articles I wanted to pose a question in two parts. Do you know an A minor chord and an A minor Pentatonic scale? The answer is probably ‘yes’. Then I’ll ask again, do you really know the chord and scale? By this I mean do you know the notes in the chord, can you invert the chord and play it’s inversions anywhere on the fretboard. Which notes in the A minor pentatonic scale are resolutions over an A minor 7th chord? Can you play the scale shape in all five positions and name the notes? What are other applications for this scale? Are you confused by ‘The Modes’? All of these questions and many more will be answered in detail each month as a primer for my new Truefire instructional series called ‘Sweetnotes’ which is scheduled for release this summer.
I hope you enjoyed this article and it has inspired you in some way. please feel free to give us any feedback or comments you may have. Thanks for listening!
See you next month with an article on chord tones & resolutions!
Guitar Institute, London, Graduate
Guitar Institute , Hollywood, CA, Graduate
Guitar Instructor, Musicians Institute,G.I.T. London, ’95 – ’98
Guitarist Of The Year, London, (2nd Place) 1995
Little Walter Tube Amps Endorsee
B.B.C. TV. / PBS & Nashville Sessions